Hitch a Ride through John Betjeman’s Kentish Town

‘I can remember the horse tram, open on top, and I longed to clutch one of those bobbles that hung down temptingly from the plane trees’

A little corner of Paris? Vienna? No, Parliament Hill Mansions NW5
Today the Wednesday Picture takes a long overdue glance at some of the most famous words ever written about Kentish Town, from poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, first (and most famously) in his poem Parliament Hill Fields, and then in a revealing letter he wrote to a friend in 1971.

Betjeman’s parents lived in Parliament Hill Mansions, Lissenden Gardens when the poet was born, before moving to much posher 31 Highgate West Hill, but he was haunted by the former’s ‘red-brick’ gloom. Taught by TS Eliot at Highgate Junior School, he described himself as a ‘poet and hack’ in Who’s Who and was appointed poet laureate in 1972 after the death of Cecil Day Lewis.

The sublime poem Parliament Hill Fields recalls a tram ride through Kentish Town to Highgate. The historian Gillian Tindall talks of trams as quickly signifying, for many writers and novelists, all that was ‘prosaic and crushing in urban lower-class life’, and so Betjeman is ‘essentially an outsider’ on this ride through the manor:

Rumbling under blackened girders, Midland, bound for Cricklewood,
Puffed its sulphur to the sunset where that Land of Laundries stood.
Rumble under, thunder over, train and tram alternate go,
Shake the floor and smudge the ledger, Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co.,
Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the lines below.


When the Bon Marché was shuttered, when the feet were hot and tired,
Outside Charrington’s we waited, by the “STOP HERE IF REQUIRED”,
Launched aboard the shopping basket, sat precipitately down,
Rocked past Zwanziger the baker’s, and the terrace blackish brown,
And the curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town.

Till the tram went over thirty, sighting terminus again,
Past municipal lawn tennis and the bobble hanging plane;
Soft the light surburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,
Eighteen-sixty Early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French Window fire.

Oh the after-tram-ride quiet, when we heard a mile beyond,
Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by Highgate Pond;
Up the hill where stucco houses in Virginia creeper drown-
And my childish wave of pity, seeing children carrying down
Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town.

When did trams become an accurate indication of an area’s social status? And did they actually lead to decline, or confirm a ‘pre-existing’ decline? Ultimately the poem, for Tindall, is about the ‘social juxtaposition’ that crops up again and again in the ‘reminiscences of men and women old enough to remember the time when the poor were different from us.’ Yet in his more recent introduction to a new Betjeman collection, writer Hugo Williams is more upbeat: ‘To have conjured a whole childhood from the fugitive material of the recent past and made it hearable, tasteable and smellable to the modern reader is Betjeman’s special gift.’

The Betjeman statue at St Pancras International

Another intriguing artefact for the K-curious is a letter from Betjeman to his friend Coral Howells, a member of Camden History Society, dated April 20, 1971. Here the poet provides a detailed description of Kentish Town from the top of the Number 7 tram. It’s worth reading in full:

‘I can remember the horse tram, open on top, and I longed to clutch one of those bobbles that hung down temptingly from the plane trees.

‘Hampstead Heath then had buttercups, daisies and dandelions in the grass at Parliament Hill Fields. Daniels was a kind of Selfridges and it was on the corner of Prince of Wales Road.

‘There was a cinema on the same side and there I saw my first film, very early ­animated pictures, it was called the ‘Electric Palace’. My father, who was deaf, liked going to silent films and took me with him. Opposite Kentish Town underground station was a Penny Bazaar and next to that was Zwan­ziger, which always smelt of baking bread.

Here too was the tram stop for the last stage of the route north. Then there was an antique dealer and picture framer called Yewlett and a public house (left). My father ­visited the former but not the latter.

‘Then there were some late-Georgian brick houses with steps up to their front doors, then the always-locked parish church of Kentish Town (that was the one I referred to in the poem – [Parliament Hill Fields]). It was rebuilt in Norman style in 1843 by JH Hakewill and seems to have no dedication. It was very Low.

A very ‘Low’ church

‘Then came Highgate Road station with a smell of steam and rare trains which ran to Southend from a terminus at Gospel Oak.

‘Then there were some rather grander shops with a definite feeling of suburbia; Young the chemist – Young had a collie dog; Pedder the oil and colourman; and French for provisions; the Gordon House, grim behind its grey walls.

‘I remember thinking how beautiful the new bits of Metroland Villas were in Glenhurst Avenue, and my father telling me they were awful.

‘Then there was the red-brick gloom of ­Lissenden Gardens. I was born at 52 but moved to West Hill as a baby so cannot recall the flats.

‘I could go on like this forever, but I must stop or I shall arrive at 31 West Hill. It was very countrified. My greatest thrill was to walk with my father down a place in Kentish Town called Faulkner’s Lane. I then thought it was a slum, but now realise it was charming Middlesex Cottages. It was a little village south of the Great Eastern and on the east side of Kentish Town Road.

‘I remember going with my mother to visit a ‘poor family’ in Anglers’ Lane, Kentish Town. The only toys the children had to play with were pieces of wood from a bundle of kindling.’

To conclude? It’s interesting how this nostalgic, love-hate, rather romantic view of Kentish Town as ‘poor’ but somehow appealing pervaded Betjeman’s thoughts from boyhood to old age.

And it’s summed up even more clearly in the battering taken by NW5 in Summoned by Bells (1960):

‘Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.’

Whilst perhaps not as extreme in 2012, the juxtaposition between poor and rich, and between the bustle of Kentish Town and leafy Parliament Hill/Highgate is still very much in evidence; the area’s lifeblood, isn’t it? Social mix is, as we all know, what keeps a place vital. Or, as Tindall concludes: ‘From the blackened, train-shaken heart of Kentish Town to the airy pseudo-rural heights [was] only a short tram-ride away.’

Words & Photos: Stephen Emms

This is box title
John Betjeman On Churches. By Jonathan Glancey (Methuen)
Poet to Poet: John Betjeman, introduction by Hugo Williams (Faber)
The Fields Beneath by Gillian Tindall (Eland)


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